Government Shutdown Highlights issues in US Governance

Chris Anderson

For the first time since 2013, the United States federal government shut down last weekend.

The three-day shutdown, which lasted from Jan 20 to Jan 23, led to the furlough of thousands of non-essential government employees and the closing of nearly a third of the country’s national parks.

Beyond the economic effects, Iowa State professor of political science, Dirk Deam, believes this shutdown also highlights the institutional issues existing in Congress and the partisan nature of our government.

The shutdown began last Friday when the Senate failed to pass a “continuing resolution”, which would have funded the government for a limited period of time. Thus, with no appropriations bill reaching the president’s desk, the government had no money to operate and was forced to shut down. 49 Senators voted against the resolution, 44 Democrats and 5 Republicans.

Deam sees two major frustrations present in congress which led to the inability to pass this resolution. The first of these being the rejection of using continuing resolutions to fund government, a complaint in both major parties.

Continuing resolutions are not a “normal” way for government to appropriate money. Rather than passing short term bills to fund the government for a limited amount of time, Congress once passed comprehensive budgets for the entire fiscal year.

“The production of a comprehensive annual budget hasn’t happened for decades,” Deam said. “The practice [of Continuing Resolutions] has become increasingly a tool of political polarization, used as much to exact concessions from the opposing party on contentious public policies as much as to fund government operations.”

An example of this can in fact be found in the continuing resolution that was passed, reopening the Federal Government on Tuesday.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program(CHIP) funding expired four months ago.  Deam shared that Republicans could have funded the program at any time, but instead used it as a “bargaining chip” to get Democrats and moderate Republicans on board with their resolution.

The bill that reopened the federal government, which 81 senators voted for, included measures to fund the CHIP program for another six years.

“It’s inefficient governing, and it puts partisan gamesmanship ahead of the constitutional duty to legislate and budget in an orderly way that serves the needs of the nation,” Deam said.

Deam believes that all republicans and some of the democrats who essentially voted to shut down the federal government did so because of opposition to the use of continuing resolutions.

The second, more publicized issue, was that of what to do about DACA. Urgency was created when President Trump announced the program would be terminated this coming March. This leaves the decision of how to give DACA recipients a path to citizenship up to congress.

DACA is a popular program among the American people, with 86% of Americans supporting the program in a recent poll by ABC News. Democratic and some Republican senators have made it a major goal to get the program formalized in law, so as to protect DACA recipients from deportation.

According to Deam, the issue with this is the current Republican led government’s ability to legislate.

“Republicans have had an unprecedented poor track record in passing major legislation since taking control of both houses of Congress,” Deam said.

Deam cited concerns among the among Democrats that there may not be a serious bi-partisan consideration of the DACA issue before the March deadline due to Republican’s perceived inability to govern effectively.

Republicans do not need Democratic votes to govern, however there are enough dissenters within their own party, mostly from the far-right or libertarian wings, that force Republicans to rely on Democratic votes.

“In the weeks leading up to the current deadline for government funding, Democrats increasingly indicated their unwillingness to repeat their unconditioned support for Republican CR’s, insisting on an agreement about DACA as a pre-condition for their votes,” Deam said.

In addition to the CHIP funding, a public commitment to work on a DACA fix by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was a condition of the resolution that was ultimately passed to reopen the federal government.

Some more left leaning democrat’s feel that by only getting a verbal commitment by McConnell to work towards legislating on DACA was poor negotiation on behalf of these Democrats.

A tweet by former Al-Jazeera America editor, David Klion, which received attention on Twitter echoes these leftist sentiments.

“I just remembered that Obama told the Dreamers it was safe to come out of the shadows and give the government all this information about themselves and then the Democrats sold them out when they absolutely could have stood their ground and now I’m pretty disgusted,” Klion wrote in a tweet.

Deam however feels that expecting to see a DACA bill as an outcome of the shutdown was an “unrealistic expectation”.

“Senate Democrats succeeded in getting Mitch McConnell to commit publicly to work on DACA.  That’s a first, so that’s an achievement.  They also got funding for CHIP out of the deal without having to lift a finger.  That’s also a plus,” Deam said.

Deam also believes that by keeping the shutdown short, Democrats are less likely to pay any political cost for the shutdown.

The way forward for Democrats in Deam’s opinion, should be relying on the overwhelming support for the DACA program and calling out publicly attempts to impose complications that inflame or divide rather than solve the issue.

Although Deam feels Republicans may have “won” the battle of the shutdown by casting it as a failure by Democrats, he feels that does not change the ineffectiveness of Republican leadership and the related issues when it comes to congressional governance.

A bigger problem in his eyes is the continuing practice of congress using continuing resolutions for government funding, something both major parties are guilty of, which he feels could lead to another shutdown in the future.

This along with the debt-ceiling extension and DACA deadline, both coming up soon, point fingers towards some very real issues in how our government is operating.

“Short-terms CR’s govern by crisis urgency, usually inflaming partisan animosity in a self-reinforcing process that makes everyone ever more angry and frustrated,” Deam said.